What do heavy metal, black magick, horror flicks, and cute fuzzy animals all have in common? They’ve likely been featured as the subject of a painting by artist Johannah O’Donnell. This native Floridian’s artwork is influenced by ’70s sci-fi/fantasy art and the American pop art movement. Music idols, witches, zombies and cats–sometimes zombie-cats– alike are all portrayed near-photo realistically in an unexpected color palette, merging figurative symbolism and mysticism as a narrative surrounding ideas of the human condition.
Dirge entered the neon realm of Johannah O’Donnell to find out more about her creative process, inspirations, and what she listens to while creating.
Dirge: Can you tell us more about your background and what made you become an artist?
Johannah O’Donnell: I come from a family of creative people, so my artistic tendencies were always supported and encouraged. I was constantly drawing, so I don’t really think that being an artist was a conscious choice I made, per se. Making stuff was just something I always did. I attended Ringling College of Art as a fine arts major, with a concentration in printmaking and sculpture. I didn’t do much painting until I moved to Orlando and got work as a scenic artist. At that point I had to learn how to paint, and quick! So, although I went to school for art, and learned so much about concepts and theory, I consider myself a self-taught painter.
Working as a scenic artist requires a lot of skill because you have to portray a very broad array of topics for your clients – did any specific project shape your current painting style? How has your art evolved since you first started painting for yourself?
Doing scenic art teaches you adaptability for sure. I wasn’t trained as a painter, so I had a fairly steep learning curve when I started out. Luckily, I worked with some very talented and generous artists, and they showed me the ropes. Honestly, I don’t think any one project shaped my style; ALL of the projects shaped it. I did a lot of very clean, graphic work, and a lot of painterly work as well. I like to incorporate both of these styles into my personal work. On a side note, the other scenic artists I worked with over the years definitely influenced my style as well.
Your influences include pop culture, tattooed and painted metal muses, wolf-headed gents, and of course, cats. Where do you pull some of these ideas from?
Basically, I just paint what I’m interested in. I am concerned about the state of the environment, so humankind’s relationship with nature is a pretty constant theme.
Also, as someone who likes heavy metal music and has tattoos, it makes sense that I’d incorporate that stuff into my work.
Everyone’s art has an element of self-portrait to it, right? I like the idea of combining different genres of art in interesting ways. Fantasy art that also deals with pop culture. Pop art that addresses environmental issues. And of course, cat art! I’m actually more of a dog person, but cats are very fun to paint. Lil Bub being the most fun of all, of course.
The pops of saturated candy colors within your art is unexpected. Does this add to your overall concept, or do the colors represent anything specifically?
That’s an interesting question. I have a very 1980s aesthetic. That was the decade I grew up in, and I loved all those bright Lisa Frank colors and chaotic patterns when I was a kid. Also, some of the ideas I’m putting out there are kind of strange, so maybe the happy colors help soften the impact a little. I think it makes them more digestible. I’m not saying that I make a conscious choice to do this, necessarily, but on a subconscious level, I think that could be the case. I try not to be too introspective, though. I tend to go with my gut.
More often than not, the females in your artwork are represented with their “human” faces, but the men are portrayed as wolves, rams, etc. Why is that?
I get asked that a lot. I think some people interpret this as a negative thing that I think men are animals–haha–but that’s not the case at all. These hybrids are inspired by Egyptian gods and Greek myths, and represent a sort of “spirit guide” to me. I’m a huge fan of the book American Gods, so I’m sure that was an influence as well.
What was the most powerful work of art you recall viewing? Where was it? How did it make you feel?
That’s a hard one to answer! I’m lucky to have seen so much good art. My husband Adriaan and I visited our friend in Amsterdam last year. While we were there, we went to the Rijksmuseum and saw Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.” It took my breath away. First of all, it’s HUGE. The absolute mastery of craft in that piece is just mind-boggling. It’s such a fantastic painting and photos do not do it justice.
What’s the most indispensable item in your studio?
My laptop. I mock up my ideas digitally before I start painting, so it’s crucial for that. Also, I listen to audiobooks while I work, because the actual process of painting is pretty boring otherwise. The fun part is goofing around with Photoshop. Second most indispensable item: My Ott Light!
Tell us about working with cat superstar Lil Bub!
It’s so great! The friend we visited in Holland last year introduced me to the world of Bub, and needless to say, I was immediately smitten. Bub’s dad, Mike, did “Fan Art Fridays” on Bub’s Facebook page back then, so I decided to do a couple paintings of her. They were featured on the page, and that pretty much broke the ice. Those paintings are also in Lil Bub’s Lil Book. From there, I made a Jaws-inspired poster that was used to promote her VICE special, and then multiple pieces for Bub-themed shows. Late last year, Mike asked if they could use one of my Bub paintings for her album cover, and of course I said yes. It’s so cool to see that painting everywhere now. Mike also hooked me up with an invite to participate in Cat Art Show Los Angeles, which is a huge deal. The lineup of artists is ridiculous. I created two new Bub pieces for that show!
Do you have a dream project you’d like to work on?
I actually do. I would like to work on a large painting, just because. No deadlines; no theme restrictions. I’m very thankful to be busy with projects, but it would be nice to have the time to come up with something big and crazy and see it through to completion.
You have several Slayer and Iron Maiden references in your artwork. What other bands are you currently listening to?
I primarily listen to audiobooks and podcasts while I’m painting. My brain is always going in a million directions at once, and I’m easily distracted, so when I’m painting I need something on in the background to keep me on task. Some good audiobooks I’ve listened to lately: Night Film, Wild, The Luckiest Girl Alive, Gone Girl, and Sisterland. Currently listening to Save Yourself, and so far, I’m really liking it.